How to create a functional project plan in Excel?

How to Create a Project Plan in Excel

If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a blank spreadsheet, wondering how to turn it into a structured plan for your next big project, you’re in the right place. 

Creating a project plan in Excel may seem daunting, but I’m here to walk you through it step by step. 

In this article, we will break down the process, sharing tips, tricks, and templates to help you get organized and, most importantly, get things done.

But, before we dive in, it’s important to acknowledge that Excel, while versatile, isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. 

I have shed light on its limitations, when it’s best to use Excel, and when it is better to rely on a better option like a project management tool.

Explore Excel alternatives that will suit your requirements – 17 Best Microsoft Excel Alternatives & Competitors

What is a project plan?

A project plan is a living, actionable, and dynamic framework, created before the beginning of a project for successful project execution, effective control, and timely delivery.

As defined by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), it is a formal document, outlining all the project execution and control guidelines that are approved by all the members concerned.

From sketching out the project scope, objectives, and timelines to establishing evaluation criteria for safeguarding the project against risks and ensuring quality standards, the project plan serves as a roadmap and a clear blueprint for everyone involved in the project.

Tips for formulating a brilliant project plan –

  • Evaluate your needs, resources, and project objectives as the first thing if you do not want to hit project failure because of bad planning.
  • Construct a solid plan and break it down into manageable tasks.
  • Analyze potential risks and risk-mitigating parameters beforehand. Also, do not forget to specify milestones.
  • Allocate required resources, time, and budget to the tasks. 

Read More: Steps to create a perfect project plan

Without further ado, let us now jump directly on the steps to create a project plan.

How to create a project plan in Excel?

For your convenience and ease, I am breaking down the entire process into clear actionable steps.

Step 1 –  Create headers

Once you’ve opened up your Microsoft Excel, and have an Excel worksheet to work on, it’s time to take the first step in setting up a project plan for you. 

Start adding headers to the table.  Label the columns as 

Column A: “Task” or “Activity” or “Actionable Item”

Column B: “Start Date”

Column C: “End Date”

Column D: “Duration”

Column E: “Assigned To”

Column F: “Task Status”

Feel free to add on as many columns as you want, and adjust their alignment, column width, and formatting, to make your project plan tailored to your requirements.

Create desired headers for your project
Create headers according to your project plan

Step 2 – Add your project information

Now that you are all prepared with your project plan base, start listing your project information in the columns stated.

  • Start by filling up column A and listing down all your tasks and subtasks. You can even categorize them by giving them a label or creating a separate column instead.
  • Move on to filling Columns B and C by adding start and end dates to build your project timeline. For that first select both the columns, right click on any cell, and a dialog box like this will appear.
Add your project information in the columns
Add project information

      From here select the Date category, and choose the way you want to format it. 

  • Next comes the duration, which you can compute by selecting the cell and applying the formula = C2-B2. Then, drag and drop the right dot of the cell and the formula will be applied to the rest of the cells too.
Apply the formula for project duration
Apply the formula for project duration
  •  Following the above procedure, mention the resources for each task and mention its current status.
Allocate resources for each task
Allocate resources for each task

P.S. – If either of your tasks is dependent on the other, or if only the completion of one can kick start the other, you can add one extra column labeling Dependency.

Step 3: Format and Customize

Now color, font size & style, apply conditional formatting, and more from the Home Tab to set the aesthetics of your project reports.

Format and Customize with Conditional formatting
Format and customize with conditional formatting

As you can see from the status report, I’ve highlighted every pending task in red to clearly signal them for being behind schedule and capture the user’s attention.

The visual project timeline assists in clearly depicting the project expectations, progress, priorities, and due dates. 

P.S. – Looking to create a visual draft of your plan using Gantt charts or simplify your project timeline? 

Check out our guide.

Step 4: Save your plan

Once you’re done with all the adjustments, do not forget to save the workbook. For that click on the File option from the Excel ribbon following with Save option. 

Step 5: Update and maintain

It is more of a regular routine you need to follow, than a step that you can take for once. Because as the project progresses, you need to stay on top of project updates and maintain the plan throughout its lifecycle. 

This way you can ensure your project’s progress, and hold team members accountable for their actions. 

Step 6: Collaborate and share

Lastly, finish the project plan by sharing it with team members and stakeholders involved for better collaboration. 

Get to know ProofHub’s capability in breaking the collaboration barriers. Explore how collaboration can help.

Is there a project plan template in Excel?

If you wanna skip all the steps to create a project plan in Excel, the ready-to-use project planning templates are a perfect solution for your planning needs.

For the time being, there are only two dedicated project plan templates available in Excel. These are –

Gantt project planner

This template serves the modern business needs for creating a project plan by incorporating both a static timeline and a visual Gantt chart on the right for enhanced project visualization. 

You can make the most of these color-coded bars to track the task progress.

Download here:

Read More: How To Use Gantt Chart Template In Project Management

Marketing project plan

The marketing project plan template includes the task lists, status, task assigned to (owner), anticipated and actual start and end dates, and cost columns. 

Marketing teams can make the most of this template to stay on top of their marketing ventures. 

Download here:

However, several project plan templates are available online to download from third-party sources, such as Project Manager, Smartsheet, Vertex 42, Office Timeline, and others.

Limitations of creating a project plan in Excel

While many project managers out there still use Excel for project planning, does it stand the test of efficiency and effectiveness in the long run?

I doubt.

While I won’t question its usefulness as a to-do list or simply a spreadsheet tool, Excel’s limitations in handling complex calculations, tracking changes, and lack of automation capabilities make it less suitable for drafting full-fledged project plans.

  • Prone to errors and time-consuming

Here comes the fundamental limitation of project management in Excel – time consuming and vulnerable to blunders.

Documenting, updating, finding, and cross-checking your project plan in Excel consumes a lot of your time and effort. Moreover, due to being shared among multiple members, your project plan is susceptible to faults.

Also, when different information is scattered across different spreadsheets, and in the worst-case scenario, stored in various locations, information silos become an unavoidable repercussion.

  • Managing dependencies is challenging 

Managing and showing task dependencies in Excel workbooks is tricky and high-key.

Because, again, we lack any built-in feature and need to start from scratch to define which task cannot commence before the completion of another.

For a timeline, you need to add an extra column defining the predecessor task for each task. And if you want to transform it into a visual representation, creating a Gantt chart using a stacked bar chart is the only possible way out.

  • Limited resource management capabilities

If you are a team of few members and customers, and you rarely handle multiple projects altogether, Microsoft Excel can be enough for allocating and scheduling resources.

But, there’s a twist.

Excel falls short when it comes to your complex resource allocation needs, especially for robust capacity planning. You cannot utilize your available manpower because you simply cannot track your overallocated and underutilized resources.

  • No dedicated reporting features

Excel does not offer a dedicated reporting feature, however, it includes a variety of features and built-in templates that can be used to generate comprehensive reports. 

You must be wondering, if it has so much to offer, where does this lashback come from?

Because, despite having charts, graphs, pivot tables, formulas, functions, and more, Excel limits its functionality to generate complex data reports with less time and effort. 

  • Project scalability is a nightmare

Once your projects or team member count starts to increase, there is no turning back to Excel’s limited and intricate methods. 

Even if you attempt to stick to these old-fashioned intersections of rows and columns, you’ll soon end up with a handful of Excel spreadsheets and information scattered all around. 

Excel spreadsheets fail to support scalability and offer a comprehensive picture of project status and progress. 

  • Maintaining versions is a big no

Imagine you and your colleagues working on a shared Excel workbook and either one of you causes (intentionally or unintentionally) a blunder. And keeping a manual check on it becomes too demanding.

What comes next is a huge disappointment. Why?

Despite having built-in Track Change, the feature is not robust enough to provide ultimate revision history control. Moreover, you can’t assess this functionality beyond shared workbooks.

  • Real-time collaboration is a struggle

Excel doesn’t support real-time collaboration. Period. And if you think otherwise, then you my friend, should give it a second thought. 

To some extent, yes, I agree, it does, but is it enough? 

If you consider sharing Excel workbooks, providing access, and tracking down comments as collaborative metrics, then you should explore true essential collaborative capabilities. 

When it comes to effective and excellent project planning and management, turning to efficient project planning tools is the only solution available that will make a difference. 

If you’re frustrated with the limitations of Excel for project management, try ProofHub’s Gantt chart for efficient project planning.

ProofHub for enhanced project planning

While Excel is a viable option for basic projects, ProofHub steps in as a robust project management software, especially when dealing with large and complex projects. (Where Excel completely surrenders its efficiency)

The all-in-one solution seamlessly complements Excel with its advanced and intuitive infrastructure, offering solutions to many of the most complex limitations associated with Excel project planning.

  • Seamless project planning

Project management is ProofHub’s forte. It eliminates Excel’s time-consuming and error-prone processes with its streamlined and efficient platform to enhance the efficiency of your project planning process.

This highly customizable platform eliminates the need to jump across various Excel sheets by centralizing everything you and your team need in a one-centralized platform.

Still using Excel for project planning? See how to revolutionize your approach to project management.

  • Effortless task management
ProofHub - Task Progress View
Manage tasks with ProofHub

ProofHub provides you greater control over your task management practice by allowing you to not only create and assign tasks but also decide the order in which you want them to be executed. 

With ProofHub’s Gantt chart (need not be built from scratch), you can easily plan your tasks, visualize the dependencies between them, modify the plan without disrupting the task flow, and compare the progress against the pre-defined timeline.

  • Efficient resource management

While resource allocation is a continuous process, ProofHub aids you in streamlining this process by monitoring your team’s activity to neither overburden nor underutilize your team members. 

You can use resource reports and resource utilization reports to get a summarized overview of your resource’s entire activity and identify their productivity levels. Also, ProofHub’s Calendar view is a great way to review your resource’s availability. 

  • Advanced insight reporting
Advanced insight reporting in ProofHub
Advanced insight reporting

ProofHub’s built-in reports curb Excel’s limitation of not being able to provide comprehensive reports. You can either use built-in reports or create custom reports as per your requirements.

This way you can get an idea of where your team’s efforts are invested and how your work is progressing but make the most of those intricate details to make adjustments in your plan for successful project execution.

  • Extremely scalable

ProofHub places greater focus on scaling up without causing stress. The flat pricing model of ProofHub is significant evidence of ProofHub’s commitment to scalability. 

ProofHub’s easy-to-navigate interface allows you to add as many people as you want and handle as many projects as you can. Moreover, you can even collaborate with external stakeholders on ProofHub using a link, without requiring them to sign in.

  • Complete version control

ProofHub eliminates the major Excel complication of not having a version control, by providing complete access to version history. No more blame games, just a quick glance at the revision history.

Also, you can easily identify the changes made, who made them, and when by following a few simple steps. Also, you can store various file versions and even restore them whenever required.

  • Effective real-time collaboration
Collaborate with your team instantly
Collaborate with your team instantly

Collaboration is a seamless experience with ProofHub. It provides you with a dedicated space for collaborating on tasks, mitigating even the slightest scope of misunderstanding. 

Moreover, you can also utilize ProofHub’s built-in features, such as discussions, real-time chat, and much more to effectively collaborate with your team members. You can even annotate directly on documents and decide a specific privacy level to safeguard your sensitive information.

Empower your team for effective communication using the top online collaboration tools.

Make a switch: It’s the right time

While creating a project plan in Excel is an effective and economical choice for smaller teams and projects, the complexities that accompany growing Excel sheets become naturally overwhelming.

However, keeping in mind Excel’s limitations, ProofHub emerges as a robust and specialized project management software for enhanced project planning.

Not only does it ensure all-encompassing success but introduces efficiency to your operations, by centralizing task management, team management, resource allocation, seamless collaboration, and more.

Lastly, no matter the choice you make, the key to successful project planning still remains strategic planning, clear communication, and effective resource utilization.

Try ProofHub for free

Ready to streamline your project planning and get more done in less time? Try ProofHub free for 14-days. (No credit card required)

Project plan in Excel FAQs

What are the key components of a project plan?

The essential elements of a project plan include –

Project objectives – Despite acknowledging the fact that a project plan is prone to experience vulnerability during the entire course, defining project objectives sets a direction to achieve the project purpose.

Scope statement- The scope of a project is a clear written set of instructions and performance goals for team members. It includes stakeholder requirements, the team’s vision, expected results, and all the boundaries and limitations of a project.

Project budget – Estimating the total project cost of all the tasks before allocating a certain amount to each one is the responsibility of a project manager. Also, taking an extreme level of control over the combined project expenditure on all activities is essential to not run out of budget.

Project schedule – Developing a project timeline is crucial for communicating the project milestones and deadlines and defining the roles and responsibilities for the successful project execution. The process can become easy with a project management tool like ProofHub.

Resource allocation plan- Determining the resources (people, equipment, materials, and budget) required for successful project execution and allocating these to specific tasks or activities is the foundation of effective project management.

Risk assessment plan –  This includes identifying the potential risks that could affect the project’s performance, status, and budget in any way possible, and developing strategies to mitigate them for timely project delivery.

Communication plan – Specifying the right frequency and communication strategies that will be incorporated during the entire project journey, and the recipients that will be engaged, is a crucial part of a well-defined project plan.

How to handle changes or delays in the project plan?

The key to handling changes or delays in the project plan is to stop the project from derailing. Fort that you need to – 

  • First, identify the root cause of the change or delay and assess the severity of the impact it can have on the success of your project plan. 
  • The next step is to communicate them to your stakeholders or the team members concerned to avoid unpleasant surprises. 
  • Once done, update your project plan accordingly to meet your project plan objectives. 
  • Stay on top of the project to prevent further disruptions.

Are there Excel templates available for project planning?

Yes. There are two built-in Excel templates available – A marketing project plan ( dedicated Excel template for marketing teams) and a Gantt project planner for any type of project.

How can I create a project plan that is easy to update and maintain?

You need not look elsewhere than ProofHub for seamless and efficient project planning. With its robust project planning solutions, you can both maintain and update your project plan with minimalist efforts.

How do I create a project timeline in Excel?

To create a project timeline in Excel, you can either use the built-in template or create a Gantt chart in Excel.

When to use Excel for project planning?

Excel works fine for individual users, beginners, and smaller teams with limited projects to manage. Also, if you just want to analyze and modify your data, Excel is sure to satisfy your needs.

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